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Tuesday, August 09, 2022

Students to show off robotic innovations at demo day

Despite his clipped wings, Pepper the parrot is now mobile and a little quieter thanks to robotics.

Pepper now cruises around in the Bird Buggy, a robot created by Andrew Gray, a 29-year-old electrical and computer engineering graduate student, for the intelligent machines design laboratory course.

The Bird Buggy, and 12 other robots created by students in the course, will be on display today at this semester’s Robot Media/Guest Demo Day.

The free event is put on by the class’s professors, A. Antonio Arroyo and Eric M. Schwartz, and will be from 1 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. at the New Engineering Building in the Harris Corporation Rotunda.

Students worked all semester on autonomous robots that do not require continuous human guidance or remote controls to perform tasks.

Students had to develop their own ideas and find the appropriate parts. While some robots cost between $200 and $300, others are made from $1,000 worth of metal and circuitry.

Schwartz said he enjoys seeing the joy on his students’ faces when they show off their hard work. Many have gone on to get jobs after their participation in the course.

“You’re kind of the grandparent,” Schwartz said. “You’re the parent of the student, and the student is the parent of the robot.”

Students faced several challenges in the development of the robots, but none like John Phillips, who took his robot a level deeper: underground.

The 22-year-old mechanical engineering senior built an 8-by-4 foot wooden box in which his robot, Holey Moley, can navigate hills of dirt.

Using two sensors, Holey Moley can tunnel through mounds of dirt, positioning itself without the need for remote controls.

The name, he said, sprang from a conversation with his father.

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“I sent him a picture of it, and he said ‘Holey moley!’ and I said, ‘Man, that’s a great name,’” he said.

While Holey Moley digs through dirt, the Bird Buggy will make its debut sans Pepper, whose screams were not only the inspiration for the project but also the reason Pepper won’t make an appearance.

For Gray, it began with trying to suppress Pepper’s shrieks. He first tried a robotic squirt gun that would squirt the African grey parrot every time he screamed. But when Pepper started using it as a birdbath, Gray decided to try a rattling device. Pepper eventually ignored the rattle.

The Bird Buggy is the latest in Gray’s attempts to silence the screeches. Pepper is more calm when around Gray, so he wanted to enable the bird to follow him around the house.

The buggy is a square-shaped, four-wheeled metal vehicle lined with newspapers for Pepper’s occasional droppings. In the front stands the joystick, which Pepper can control with his beak, and behind it is the bird’s perch. Sensors in the front prevent the robot from bumping into anything, such as the occasional wall or chair leg.

When not navigated by the parrot, the Bird Buggy will go into autonomous mode and dock itself, a feature Pepper particularly dislikes.

“If you leave him on, he gets really angry because he tries to move the buggy, and it doesn’t respond to him,” Gray said, “so we just take him off. Otherwise, he has a fit.”

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